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Monday, February 6, 2023

A Year After Pittsburgh Attack, Escalating Threats Call for Comprehensive Preparedness

In a short recruitment video that looks all to familiar to any analyst who sifted through years of the stylized violence of ISIS films, the neo-Nazi Atomwaffen Division preceded the grim anniversary of an anti-Semitic massacre in Pittsburgh by vowing to launch a campaign of terror.

Clad in camouflage and black with skull face masks and some eyes obscured in the editing process, the group’s members fired rifles at targets in the woods, some of their exercises captured from above by a drone camera, while the altered voice of a narrator declared “the beginning of the end” and promised “final destruction” while standing over flags of Israel and the United States — banners eventually torched by the group.

“There will be neither compromises nor half measures taken on our part to secure our race,” the narrator vowed, while calling for recruits to unleash on the “frail” and opponents “like a howling wolf” — echoing ISIS’ favored animal to describe independent operatives. “There will be no place far enough, no hole deep enough, no forest remote enough to hide from our ever-encroaching terror,” the video continued, vowing “a war that no one will escape from” and using an anti-Jewish slur to refer to “the system” that they vow to defeat.

The video, circulated online earlier this month, ended with an email contact for new recruits and the words, “Stay tuned shooters.”

A recent release from The Base, another militant white supremacist group, lifts footage from the September joint hearing on the widespread white nationalist threat before two House subcommittees as well as a separate House Homeland Security Committee hearing. The recruiting video advertises “training events” and “networking opportunities,” and includes a clip of former FBI agent Ali Soufan testifying that al-Qaeda translates to “the base.”

During The Base training footage, one member shoots at a Star of David.

Both videos were posted on one online file-sharing site with the publication date listed as “1488” — a significant number for white supremacists that combines their “14 Words” pledge and the 88 that stands for “Heil Hitler.”

These recent recruitment efforts are merely a glimpse into the landscape of domestic terrorism that has continued to evolve — and borrow “best practices” of propaganda, online networking and recruitment honed by al-Qaeda and ISIS — in the year since 11 people were murdered at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. Joyce Fienberg, 75, Richard Gottfried, 65, Rose Mallinger, 97, Jerry Rabinowitz, 66, Cecil Rosenthal, 59, David Rosenthal, 54, Bernice Simon, 84, Sylvan Simon, 86, Daniel Stein, 71, Melvin Wax, 88, and Irving Younger, 69, were shot to death during Shabbat services.

Suspect Robert Bowers, who has pleaded not guilty to dozens of counts in the attack, derided the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society on Gab before the attack: “HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people. I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.” These “accelerationist” attacks are intended to spur other white supremacists into waging their own attacks — not unlike the domino effect ISIS seeks by heavily promoting killers such as Orlando shooter Omar Mateen, and urging them to leave final statements.

At least a dozen white supremacists have been arrested in the year since the Pittsburgh massacre for alleged roles in terrorist plots, attacks or threats against the Jewish community, according to the ADL’s Center on Extremism; there were two arrests over the same time period connected to Islamist extremists targeting the Jewish community — and one of those, Toledo synagogue attack plot suspect Damon M. Joseph, cited Bowers as an inspiration. “I admire what the guy did with the shooting actually,” Joseph wrote to an undercover FBI agent, according to the affidavit. “I can see myself carrying out this type of operation inshallah.

Additionally, 780 anti-Semitic incidents were recorded nationwide in the first six months of this year, and since the Pittsburgh shooting dozens of incidents of vandalism, leaving white supremacist propaganda or symbols, and arson have targeted Jewish institutions in this country.

In the year prior to Pittsburgh, the New York-based Secure Community Network’s duty desk fielded about 500 requests for assistance with measures to security people and property in the Jewish community. As synagogues, community centers, campus communities, schools and more face the challenge of balancing security with the necessary openness of a house of worship and hub of community service, SCN’s duty desk has taken more than 3,000 requests since the Oct. 27, 2018, Tree of Life shooting.

“The biggest adversary we are facing is denial, that it can’t happen here,” SCN CEO Michael Masters told HSToday. Since Pittsburgh, he said, many attitudes toward security in the Jewish community have shifted to, “What can I do to make sure it doesn’t happen here?”

“We’ve been dealing with these threats for 3,000 years,” he noted, and the resurgence of neo-Nazis, while chilling, is not uncharted territory: “We had to deal with the original version.”

The name-sharing between The Base and al-Qaeda isn’t a “casual connection,” Masters said, as the white nationalists are “seeking to emulate” the Islamist terror group’s tactics, messaging, recruitment well and unity of purpose in inflicting terror. “Something we need to give serious consideration toward is the difference in response we as a country have in dealing with white supremacist extremists — day to day, body for body they pose a greater threat to the American public and faith-based institutions, in particular, than Islamist organizations,” he said.

The first step is recognizing the threat: resurgent groups becoming more emboldened, copycats fueled by the shootings before them and whipped-up fervor on online messaging boards, and greater sophistication in attack plots as they seek means of inflicting the greatest harm. Far-right extremists in the United States “have pursued chemical and biological weapons more frequently” than homegrown extremists driven by loyalty to an international terrorist group, William Braniff, director of the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Response to Terrorism (START) at the University of Maryland, recently told the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

Attackers have also left postings or manifestos that cite their predecessors or spout similar white supremacist, anti-Semitic or anti-immigrant talking points, and often have been connected to a targeted violence subculture in online haunts like 4chan, 8chan, Reddit or the dark web. “There’s connectivity in ideology, linkage in tactical strategy in how they execute the attacks,” Masters said, noting the livestreaming of the March shootings at mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, and this month’s attempt by a gunman in Halle, Germany, to attack a synagogue on Yom Kippur.

Once you understand that you might be attacked, that something within your organization could be an especially soft target, and that the trajectory of the threat is only getting worse, it’s time to look at risk management: how an institution can help prevent an attack, and its response plan should an attack occur. The Department of Homeland Security and the FBI, along with local law enforcement, have partnered with faith-based organizations to ensure they have a plan in place, that it’s conveyed to all stakeholders, and that it’s tested through tabletop exercises or full-scale drills.

“As we look at soft targets and some of the crowded places out there, the concern I have is that there are some organizations that haven’t taken the message of protecting our people as seriously as they should,” Brian Harrell, assistant director for infrastructure security at DHS’ Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), told HSToday on the sidelines of a daylong DHS Active Shooter Preparedness Workshop in Washington this summer.

“Meaning, they haven’t done response and recovery plans. They haven’t engaged local law enforcement and created those vital relationships they will need in a crisis. They haven’t exercised their response plans, and these things are just foundational to saving people’s lives when seconds count,” he said. “And so my concern remains that there are individuals, companies, and organizations out there that haven’t been as forward-leaning on the basics, which will create more death and devastation that we could have otherwise been avoided.”

Harrell warned the workshop participants that “society is becoming more violent every day and there’s a small segment of society focused on hate and bigotry; they are trying to do the most damage and destroy the lives of our most innocent people.”

“I recognize that investments don’t happen overnight,” he acknowledged. “But are we building security, redundancy and resiliency into our budgets, or are we just being reactive to everything?”

Masters told HSToday that the collaboration with DHS, FBI and local partners has “had a real impact” as the Pittsburgh attack “drove home the criticality of what we’re involved in.” SCN works with a range of Jewish institutions from daycares to campus or senior centers, synagogues and hospitals to develop the best prevention and response strategies tailored to each setting.

These strategies can include utilizing off-duty law enforcement for security, teaching individuals how to spot worrisome behaviors and how to report or respond, and ensuring that ushers and greeters have situational awareness skills. SCN works with partners and the entity to develop an “avoid, deny, defend” curriculum, giving them “a script of what to do” that fosters empowerment and resiliency.

“It doesn’t matter where an attack or incident occurs, it is received by the Jewish community in the same way as an attack on the community,” Masters said, adding that information sharing on threats and measures to address them must also extend to other faith-based and ethnic groups as “we really are facing a common adversary.”

Security measures aren’t always cheap, and despite the expansion of nonprofit security grants over the past several years “requests for that funding far exceed the available amount of money,” he added, stressing that resourcing across urban, suburban and rural areas should be adequate to address the threat and the need. Communities must also figure security into the maintenance costs of a house of worship.

“Just as we pay the utility bill, this needs to be prioritized as a necessity in this day and age,” Masters said.

The partnerships with DHS and the FBI have proved critically important; Masters recalled being on the phone with senior leaders at each agency “within minutes” of the Tree of Life shooting.

From intel sharing to working on guidebooks and exercises with the Jewish community, DHS and FBI recognize they’re helping protect “not just a component of critical infrastructure but of civil society.”

“We are making incredible progress … but we also have a lot more work to do,” Masters said.

The Tree of Life synagogue, which was home to three congregations, has not reopened since the attack, but announced plans last week to rebuild thoughtfully and painstakingly with “resiliency, strength and community collaboration” that includes several congregations, the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh and Chatham University.

“We are poised to become an incredible center for Jewish life in the United States,” said Rabbi Jeffrey Myers. “When we reopen, and we most certainly will, I want the entire world to say, ‘Wow, look at what they have done.’ To do anything less disrespects the memory of our 11 martyrs.”

“We are a resilient community,” said Tree of Life president Sam Schachner. “When something bad happens, we have three choices. We can either let it define us, let it destroy us, or we can let it strengthen us. We will not let this attack destroy us. And we will not let this attack define us as a congregation.”

“We will start by engaging in a rebuilding effort in a victim-centered, collaborative, sensitive and caring manner. We will build a cooperative and collaborative space located on the current Tree of Life Or L’Simcha site that brings together stakeholders in a shared environment,” Schachner continued. “Our buildings are too old and damaged for a narrow, limited vision. We will create a place that is alive with a balance of the future and the past, a place that has the flexibility to change with the times.”

An exceptional challenge for faith-based organizations is trying to maintain a secure environment while holding fast to their mission and beliefs. The Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., welcomed with open arms a stranger, shooter Dylann Roof, to join their Bible study; the white supremacist murdered nine church members.

“We offer a warm and welcoming environment where even the oldest Jewish traditions become relevant to the way our members live today,” the Tree of Life website says today. “From engaging services, social events, family-friendly activities and learning opportunities to support in times of illness or sorrow, we match the old with the new to deliver conservative Jewish tradition that’s accessible, warm and progressive.” The one-year anniversary of the shooting is being marked with community service events, Torah study and a community commemoration open to all.

Masters stressed that welcoming the stranger is “not just an idea but an obligation” in the Jewish community.

“The reality in today’s world is that we have to balance that welcoming with safety and security, so that we are not unintentionally inviting evil into our midst,” he said.

New DHS Strategy: ‘An Aware Society’ Is Best Way to Prevent Terrorism, ‘Targeted Violence’

Bridget Johnson
Bridget Johnson is the Managing Editor for Homeland Security Today. A veteran journalist whose news articles and analyses have run in dozens of news outlets across the globe, Bridget first came to Washington to be online editor and a foreign policy writer at The Hill. Previously she was an editorial board member at the Rocky Mountain News and syndicated nation/world news columnist at the Los Angeles Daily News. Bridget is a terrorism analyst and security consultant with a specialty in online open-source extremist propaganda, incitement, recruitment, and training. She hosts and presents in Homeland Security Today law enforcement training webinars studying a range of counterterrorism topics including conspiracy theory extremism, complex coordinated attacks, critical infrastructure attacks, arson terrorism, drone and venue threats, antisemitism and white supremacists, anti-government extremism, and WMD threats. She is a Senior Risk Analyst for Gate 15 and a private investigator. Bridget is an NPR on-air contributor and has contributed to USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, New York Observer, National Review Online, Politico, New York Daily News, The Jerusalem Post, The Hill, Washington Times, RealClearWorld and more, and has myriad television and radio credits including Al-Jazeera, BBC and SiriusXM.

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